How Ben Jealous won Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial primary — and what could lie ahead

Ben Jealous’ victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary is a shockwave to Maryland Democratic Party. The former NAACP CEO is espousing positions like single-payer health care and free college tuition that make party leaders squirm. But his victory is just one piece of news in Tuesday’s election that tells us a tremendous amount of where Maryland’s voters are and what’s coming in November’s general election.

Maryland’s Democratic political order has been scrambled

As solidly Democratic as Maryland has been in recent decades, it’s not necessarily reliably liberal. We don’t mean that just because voters elected Republican Gov. Larry Hogan four years ago and have given him high approval ratings since. Rather, it has been slower than other blue states to adopt progressive policies ranging from the abolition of the death penalty to the $15 minimum wage. Maryland’s ruling political class has typically exhibited a degree of caution on policy, and voters have done the same in their choices of candidates. Four years ago, establishment favorite Anthony Brown easily defeated liberal insurgent Heather Mizeur, and Hillary Clinton trounced Bernie Sanders.

There’s no mystery who the Democratic establishment candidate was in this election: Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker. He got the endorsements of all manner of party heavyweights from former Gov. Martin O’Malley to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to Attorney General Brian Frosh. He had the “right” resume to run for governor — he’s a two-term county executive who did a stint in the legislature first — and he had clearly waited his turn.

But on the heels of Mr. Brown’s stunning loss to Mr. Hogan in 2014, there was much less enthusiasm for another anointed pick. It’s not just that so many other candidates jumped in the race or that his leading competitor throughout, Mr. Jealous, is a Bernie-loving first-time candidate. It’s that Mr. Baker struggled to raise money while many of the key outside bulwarks of the Democratic machine — particularly the unions — gravitated to Mr. Jealous this year. Groups like the Maryland State Education Association aren’t given to backing lost causes; they tend to be strategic. They were right.

The leftward tilt of the party was not just evident in the governor’s race. Progressive challengers took on incumbents and party favorites in all manner of local and legislative races, in many cases running strong, well-funded campaigns. Two such candidates had strong leads in early returns in Baltimore City — Dels. Antonio Hayes and Cory McCray, who were taking on incumbent senators in West and East Baltimore, respectively — and another, Del. Mary Washington, was neck-and-neck with the powerful Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee chairwoman, Sen. Joan Carter Conway.

Baltimore County, the state’s key swing jurisdiction and long home to conservative-minded Democrats, showed a much more progressive bent than it has previously. It was Mr. Jealous’ best jurisdiction — in early returns, he was beating Mr. Baker by a larger margin than Mr. Baker was beating him in Prince George’s. Progressive challenges to incumbent Sens. Bobby Zirkin and Delores G. Kelley didn’t appear to be gaining much traction, but the county executive’s race was waged on much more liberal ground than any such contest in decades at least. In previous races, for example, leading contenders for Baltimore County executive didn’t rail against the influence of developers, and they didn’t fight over whose record on gun control was stronger. But that was the backdrop for the competitive race between Sen. Jim Brochin, County Councilwoman Vicki Almond and former Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. The three were in a virtual tie all night, meaning the outsider candidates — Messrs. Brochin and Olszewski — had about two-thirds of the vote between them.

Governor Hogan has a lot of advantages – but no guarantee

It’s an open question as to whether Mr. Hogan would have had an easier time beating Mr. Baker or Mr. Jealous. Though both are clearly to the left of the incumbent, Mr. Baker has a more moderate image that theoretically might have appealed to the crossover voters the Republican needs to win. That said, Democrats tried the centrist approach against Mr. Hogan four years ago, and we saw how well that worked. Plus, recent troubles in Prince George’s County schools were a real weakness for Mr. Hogan to exploit. Mr. Jealous will likely take bigger swings at the governor than the genial Mr. Baker would have, and he’s shown the ability to fund-raise and put together a strong campaign team. But will his liberal positions — including proposals for single-payer health care and a tax increase on the rich — send moderate Democrats right back to Mr. Hogan?

The governor got some good news out of Baltimore County. Mr. Hogan campaigned hard for Republican Baltimore County executive candidate Al Redmer — a moderate in his own image — in the race against the Trumpian Del. Pat McDonough. Mr. Redmer raised and spent far more money than his opponent, yet the two were locked in a tight contest until recently, insiders say, when Mr. Redmer began to pull ahead. He declared victory with most of the results in.

If Mr. McDonough had prevailed, it wouldn’t just have been an embarrassment that Mr. Hogan’s hand-picked candidate lost. It would have created operational problems for him in the state’s most pivotal swing jurisdiction. Substantively and stylistically, Mr. McDonough presents precisely the sort of image that Mr. Hogan has spent the last four years (and particularly the two since President Donald Trump’s election) trying to avoid.

Even though Mr. Redmer was ultimately victorious, his struggle to overcome Mr. McDonough’s early lead reflects the degree to which the energy and enthusiasm in the Republican Party of 2018 is in its Trump wing. Polling has so far not shown an appreciable backlash among Republican voters against Mr. Hogan for his efforts to distance himself from the president or his general leftward tack this year on taxes, health care, guns and more. But Mr. McDonough’s strong showing raises the question of just how forgiving hard-core Republican voters will be. They may not be ready to fill the bubble for Mr. Baker or Mr. Jealous in November, but their turnout isn’t something to be taken for granted. Indeed, Trump voters in other states have shown precious little forbearance for candidates who try to distance themselves from the president.

And Republican enthusiasm really matters for Mr. Hogan. Much of the attention in this race has focused on Governor Hogan’s ability to reach out to Democrats, and much of the analysis of his victory four years ago has focused on Mr. Brown’s failure at turning out core Democratic supporters. But consider this: Mr. Brown would be governor today if Mr. Hogan had not run up the score in Maryland’s 18 solidly Republican counties. In an election when turnout was down across the board, Mr. Hogan eked out 61,734 more votes out of red counties than former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did in 2010. That represents nearly his entire margin of victory.

Don’t bank on a blue wave

It appears that turnout this year will beat the 2014 primary — also a competitive contest for Maryland Democrats — perhaps by 20 percent or more. Given the intensity of Democrats in the Age of Trump, many in the party appear to be banking on the idea that the enthusiasm to vote against anyone with an R after his or her name will propel the party’s nominee to the governor’s mansion. But consider this: The 2006 gubernatorial election played out at a time of similarly intense Democratic fervor, given the unpopularity of George W. Bush, yet if the level of turnout county-by-county had been the same in 2014 as it had been that year, Mr. Hogan still would have won. Mr. Brown didn’t “lose” the race, Mr. Hogan, an appealing and extremely disciplined candidate, won it. If he’s to have a chance in November, Mr. Jealous needs to play to win.

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